Help Your Heart: Don’t Stress Out

By Janine Gauthier

American Heart Month provides a wonderful opportunity to focus on integrating strategies to decrease our stress and support our hearts to keep them as healthy as possible.

As a clinical health psychologist and the director of the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush, I work with individuals experiencing health-related stress or distress. In my work, I focus on teaching patients strategies to manage their stress.

We all face physical and emotional challenges and stressors every day (sitting in traffic, family stressors, health-related stressors and work stressors). When faced with these life stressors (the good ones and the not so good ones), our brains are hard-wired and respond with what is called the “fight or flight” response. In the face of any perceived threat, our brains respond by releasing a flood of stress-related chemicals (primarily cortisol) into the bloodstream. This triggers other physical responses (adrenaline pumping into our bloodstream, glucose being released into the bloodstream), all of which are preparing our bodies to “fight or to flee.” This is a general description, however. Physically the result of these chemicals being released is an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased breaths and a host of other physical symptoms (for example, increased muscle tension, cold clammy hands).

So what can one do to decrease the negative effects of these stressors and actively take steps to care for their hearts and bodies? The first step is to evaluate our breathing. Engaging in thoracic or chest breathing is associated with triggering the fight-or-flight response. We may think we are relaxing (sitting in a comfortable chair, or lying down), but if we are engaging in thoracic breathing our brain is receiving the message that we are under threat, which results in our experiencing a heightened state of arousal. Thus, our heart rate stays elevated and our blood pressure stays elevated.

Dean Ornish, MD, a cardiologist, worked closely with his heart patients, teaching them simple stress management techniques to help lower their heart rates and blood pressure with the goal of decreasing the likelihood they would require cardiac surgery.

I teach several techniques to my patients to help them decrease the effects of stress in their lives. First and foremost is diaphragmatic breathing – or what is referred to as “belly breathing.” By breathing in your belly, a message is sent to your brain that halts the release of the stress hormones such as cortisol and triggers what is known as the relaxation response. This technique was discussed 40 years ago by Herbert Benson, MD, in his book The Relaxation Response. Recent research that has found engaging in relaxation can actually enhance the immune response of our bodies.

Guided imagery is a specific relaxation technique where powerful and relaxing images are developed to create a sense of relaxation for individuals. You might visualize a favorite vacation spot (perhaps being on the beach listening to the waves lapping on the shore) where you can let go of the everyday stresses and experience relaxation. This simple process of imagining has been found to actually trigger the same response in the brain as if one was actually lying on the beach.

Biofeedback is a method for providing individuals with feedback from their bodies which alerts them to subtle changes in their bodies indicating they are experiencing a stress response or they are experiencing the relaxation response. This method typically focuses on one area to provide feedback (such as breathing or muscle tension), and once patients learn strategies to increase relaxation, they can generalize to other areas of their bodies.

During American Heart Month, allow yourself permission to take a few minutes out of your day take a couple of deep breaths and take care of your heart!

Janine Gauthier, PhD, is director, clinical services for the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush University Medical Center.

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